Warehouse 13: “Elements” and Race Issues

5 08 2009
Warehouse 13: “Elements”
I started this episode with an audible “OH, NO.”  The scene opens with New Agey flute music and a generic Indian performing a generically Indian ceremony over some sort of tiny generic statuette in a generic cave under the surface of Manhatten.  Visually, this is not promising, but I really wonder what language he is speaking, and how well.  If the voiceover is relatively accurate, that’s something, at least.
Cut to present-day NYC, with someone pulling up the hood on what looks to my admittedly non-expert eyes like a generically Indian  magic cloak that enables the wearer to walk through walls (and also carries its own hip-hop soundtrack, too!).  This is not a particularly sophisticated invocation of the Lenape: they’re figured, as First Nations people usual are, as mystical Others with a unique connection to the land.
Also, Artie takes one look at a <em>feather</em> and says “Looks Native American”?!  Because only the First Nations ever use feathers?  Later he gets more specific: we’re meant to be looking at a Lenape shaman or something in that first scene (did the Lenape have shamans?).  So that gets a bit better, I suppose, in acknowledging a tribe at the very least.
I do feel like Weaver’s repetition of “It’s not meant for you” in the climactic cave scene acknowledges the imperialist creepiness of
I also still really like Leena and I wish she were given a chance to talk about anything that does not involve helping  the white people ~*~understand themselves~*~!  For the first few minutes of the scene between Leena and Claudia, I thought we were going to pass the Bechdel test.  But I think it violates the spirit of the Bechdel test to have the two women characters talk about something that isn’t a man if one of them is still falling into skeevy racial stereotypes.
A note on terminology: I interchange “Indian” with “First Nations” because those are generally the terms that I have seen people of Native descent prefer to use themselves when they don’t use tribe names.  “Native American,” as I understand, is a term that was decided on by white people.

I started this episode with an audible “OH, NO.”  The scene opens with New Agey flute music and a generic American Indian performing a generically Indian ceremony over some sort of tiny generic statuette in a generic cave under the surface of Manhatten.  Visually, this is not promising, but I really wonder what language he is speaking, and how well.  If the voiceover is relatively accurate, that’s something, at least.

Cut to present-day NYC, with someone pulling up the hood on what looks to my admittedly non-expert eyes like a generically “Indian”  magic cloak, which enables the wearer to walk through walls (and carries its own hip-hop soundtrack, too!).  This is not a particularly sophisticated invocation of the Lenape: they’re figured, as First Nations people usual are, as mystical Others with a unique connection to nature and the land.  In this case, that connection is so pure as to allow supernatural manipulation of the elements.

It all just seems so very stereotypical!  I am, of course, more than willing — excited, even — to be proven wrong.  I don’t know enough about Lenape culture to know how accurate any of the representations of Lenape art and language are.  But it all seems pretty generic to me.

Also problematic for me was when Artie takes one look at the feather and says “Looks Native American.”  Because only the First Nations ever use feathers?  Later, however, he at least acknowledges the name of the Lenape, which is one tiny step in the right direction.

I do feel like Weaver’s repetition of “It’s not meant for you” in the climactic cave scene acknowledges the imperialist creepiness of the white dudes collecting Lenape and Lenape-related artifacts in order to find the sacred cave and therefore master the elements.  We’ve had 500 years of fantasies of white domination already; without Weaver’s saying that, this episode really would feel like yet another un-self-conscious instance of it.  And yet the elements are themselves white fantasies: the Water of Eternal Life, in particular, plays into the same myth of the Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Léon kept pursuing.  In fact, the four “superpowers” bestowed by the four elements in the cave all represent what Europeans dreamed they would find in the New World, and the idea of there being a secret cave hidden underneath NYC that would provide all of those things only contributes to the notion that the Lenape and other tribes had Secret Knowledge about how to dominate the earth, but that they nobly safeguarded that knowledge (and therefore the earth) from the greedy rapaciousness of others.

It’s another aspect of the myth of the Noble Savage.  The problem is really that even though this story has an American Indian artifact at the center, the Lenape themselves don’t matter at all to the story.  The artifact is just a plot device, something to enable the white characters to work through conflict and save the day.  There’s no depth to the representations of non-white characters.

Which reminds me: I still really like Leena and I wish she were given a chance to talk about anything that does not involve helping  the white people ~*~understand themselves~*~!  I was so excited for the first few minutes of the scene between Leena and Claudia — I thought we were going to pass the Bechdel test at last!  But even though the two women only talked about Claudia, I think it violates the spirit of the Bechdel test to have the two women characters talk about something that isn’t a man if one of them is still falling into skeevy racial stereotypes.

But what do you think, friendly reader?

A note on terminology: I interchange “Indian” and “American Indian” with “First Nations” because those are generally the terms that I have seen people of Native descent prefer to use themselves when they don’t use tribe names.  “Native American,” as I understand, is a term that was decided on by white people.

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4 responses

6 08 2009
Jen

I haven’t seen this episode yet but I heard about the problems with it. I also saw you’re other post describing the two recurring characters of colors as “magical Negros” – can’t believe I missed that. I don’t think I’ll be watching this show any longer. I was half way there because the comedy aspect was getting annoying but recognizing all the racial stereotypes has killed any desire I had to keep watching. Given the problems in even the pilot episode I’m not sure why it took me so long to stop watching…

6 08 2009
Rachel Roslin

Hi, Jen! Thanks for stopping by.

Yeah, the racial stuff is starting to get pretty egregious. I’m torn, because as I mentioned in my other post, I find the concept of the show entertaining — and I love comedies and dramedies. And the show has done a good job with including female characters, which is more than I can say for most sci-fi shows, sadly! I’m hoping that the writers will gain clues as they get more practiced at writing the show. But if they don’t, then they’re going to lose me, too.

In the meantime, I am definitely planning to wield the clue-by-four whenever I see stuff that I find problematic!

6 08 2009
Jen

I can’t believe I typed “you’re” instead of “your” – I do know the difference! Guess that’s what I get for commenting so early in the morning…

Anyway, I tend to prefer comedy as an addition rather than as a main course – so I prefer the more serious shows like X-Files.

Regarding the racial issues I’m never sure where to draw the line having only recently learned that I should be paying more attention to them. Do you believe it’s more important to acknowledge that there are problems, than to stop watching something because of the issues?

6 08 2009
Rachel Roslin

That’s a great question, and I think it depends on each individual. I personally tend to have a pretty long fuse, and I recognize that my long fuse is a direct result of the fact that I’m white and don’t have to put up with racism every day of my life. So the fact that I’m willing to extend the benefit of the doubt in a lot of cases where others aren’t? That’s just a result of my own privilege.

And because of that, I think it’s important for me to voice the critiques that I have — because not everyone wants to be patient with shows like this, and they shouldn’t be! But I don’t want the producers and writers to get away with these subtle forms of racism just because the people who notice it tend to get rightfully angry about it and therefore stop watching. I haven’t had a dealbreaking moment yet with Warehouse 13, so as long as I can, I’ll keep pointing out where they go wrong. I feel like it’s one thing that I can do, you know?

And I might feel differently if I had a Nielsen box and knew that my viewing habits were being logged…

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